Is Housework Hurting Your Career?

women pay difference housewifeIt's an article of faith among Americans that we are overworked. We work long hours at our paid jobs, then come home and put in a long second shift. Mothers, in particular, perceive their combined work and child-care hours as extensive, leaving us starved for time -- a starvation that we sometimes assume our husbands don't face. One thing that keeps us from "leaning in" is that the demands of home make that impossible. But does the data bear that out?

For the average American, I think the perception deserves a rethink. The Pew Research Center released its analysis Thursday of last 2012's American Time Use Survey, and compared it with historic time diaries analyzed by Suzanne Bianchi and her colleagues (and published in Changing Rhythms of American Family Life in 2006 -- a book I used extensively in writing 168 Hours).

First, a data point that needs to be shouted to the rafters. Mothers in dual-income households today -- who work on average more than 30 hours per week for pay -- still do more child care than mothers in 1965, who worked on average 8 hours per week. (See charts above and below.)

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Where did they find the time? Well, it turns out that paid work and child care are not the only things that women spend their time on. They do housework, for instance. In 1965, mothers did 32 hours of housework per week while mothers in dual-income couples now do 16 hours (see chart below).

So that's 16 hours right there than could be added to the work total, bringing us up from 8 to 24 without losing a second of interactive time with the kids. Then, working mothers appear to have cut into their leisure time to a degree.

If women worked 51 hours per week (combining market and non-market totals) in 1965, women in dual-income families now work 59 hours per week. So they moved eight hours of leisure time over into the work and childcare categories, thus giving us something pretty close to the totals in the Pew study now (if you allow for rounding).

While a loss of leisure perhaps sounds dire, keep in mind that if you sleep eight hours per night, a 59-hour workweek still leaves 53 hours for things other than work, chores or child care.

Women and men in dual-income couples have pretty much the same total workweeks, when you add market and non-market hours. Men work 58 hours (42 for pay, 9 on housework, 7 on childcare) vs. women's 59. The difference is that they're getting paid for 11 more of those hours than their wives are.

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Are women doing too much housework and childcare? It raises an interesting question: if women did less on the home front, would that make more paid work hours possible? There's certainly the narrative out there that women's equality in the workforce requires men to pick up the slack at home. Sheryl Sandberg's book quotes a famous line from Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter about what men could do to help advance women's leadership: "The laundry."

Given how matched the total hours are for men and women, this seems like a tantalizing possibility. If men and women both did 12 hours of housework and 10 hours of childcare, that would even those loads and then both could work the same number of total hours for pay and still have the same total workloads.

But there's also another possibility: People are spending too much time on housework. The combined housework work-weeks for men and women in 1965 was 36 hours. For dual income couples now it is 25 hours, and yet we have not descended into complete filth and sloth.

One reason I like writing about women's magazines from the 1960s is to show how ridiculous the cleaning and cooking standards were then. Dusting daily? Waxing the floor weekly? As it is, men who find themselves in dual income couples these days have more than doubled the amount of time they spend on housework since 1965, even as their paid workweeks have stayed the same, and they've tripled the amount of time they spend with their kids.

Do men need to do more at home -- or could women just do less? The latter seems like an easier option. If working mothers did the same amount of childcare that women did in 1965 -- trusting that the tripling on the part of fathers helps make up for that -- and did the same amount of housework their husbands do now (9 hours per week) that would free up 9 hours for paid work. That would get the average working mother up to 40 hours per week, pretty close to fathers in dual income couples. I am not sure that the care of a house really requires more than 18 combined hours a week. That's more than 2.5 hours per day.

As it is, modern working mothers seem pretty sure that they're already doing a good job on the home front. According to Pew, among moms with kids under age 18, who work full- or part-time, 78 percent say they are doing an excellent or very good job as parents. There is space to lean in if people want. Now, whether people want to is an entirely different question. But it's not a matter of lacking time.

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